Wednesday 25 January 2023

Lyricism, melancholy & sadness: pianist Ruth McGinley & composer Neil Martin collaborate on Aura

Aura - Ruth McGinley, Neil Martin
Aura: traditional Irish melodies arranged by Neil Martin; Ruth McGinley
Reviewed 25 January 2023 (★★★½)

Unashamedly Romantic, this new disc takes ten traditional Irish tunes and takes them into new and hauntingly evocative territories

For her latest album, Derry-born pianist Ruth McGinley has returned somewhat to her roots and produced a disc of Irish airs re-imagined, in collaboration with Belfast composer Neil Martin. Aura (available via Bandcamp) is the least folksy of discs, though the ten tracks all have their origins in traditional melodies - nine are Martin's arrangements of traditional melodies whilst the tenth is Martin's own work which seems to be imbued with the same spirit.

There is little sense of the folksy about these piano solos, despite the background material. Martin's arrangements unashamedly take the music into a classical, Romantic territory. The tunes are rarely far away, but Martin weaves around them textures which play to McGinley's strengths as a player who moves between the classical world and the worlds of jazz and folk. Her debut disc, Reconnection, which was issued in 2016, represents a reconnection between McGinley and the piano, playing in her own music that touched her after stepping back from performing, following the intensity of her early career (she was in the piano final of BBC Young Musician in 1994).

This disc inhabits a world between, half-remembered folk given classical dress, yet always its own. This is music that McGinley renders with immense poignancy and thoughtfulness. The various tracks are quite substantial, the music expands as it needs and the hints of folk melody can be quite tantalising.

Martin's own The Boy in the Glen, for instance, written originally for the fiddler Paddy Glackin to play to the uillean piper, the late Liam O'Flynn, begins with just fragments of the very Celtic melody in the piano, but neither Martin nor McGinley is interested in Celtic twilight, and the music soon moves in richer, more expressive territories.

The tunes used are quite varied in their backgrounds, many are completely anonymous, collected at some point and thus entering the written record like Níon a Bhaoilligh (Boyles Daughter), a traditional song from West Donegal, whilst Slán le Máigh (Farewell to the Maigue) is a tune that the Limerick poet Andrias MacCraith put words to in the 18th century. The Boy in the Glen was written by Martin for a traditional fiddler. Others reflect the long tradition of collecting and adapting, so The Blue Hills of Antrim was collected in Donegal in 1903 by Herbert Hughes who set it to words by the Belfast poet Joseph Campbell, and the song gained an entirely different set of words when Seamus O Grianna set his own words to it in the 1930s/40s. And Hughes and Campbell again collaborated on the well-known My Lagan Love. With these tunes and others like Danny Boy (whose words date from 1913), though the tune survives we have lost its original context. And what this history shows us is that each generation recreates these melodies in their own image.

One of the virtues of the disc is that it largely avoids the hackneyed, for this Englishman few of the songs were familiar which is a blessing. So for the non-Irish listener, the disc creates something of a musical exploration, yet one that resolutely refuses to confine itself to the norms of traditional folk arrangement, this music welds the Celtic and Gaelic melodies to romantic arrangements of equal charm. Even when the song is The Wexford Carol, then the piano takes us into more classical realms a long way from the folk fiddle and voice.

By the time you are past the half way mark, you begin to feel perhaps that a change of tempo might be in order. But, if you simply dip into the disc, then there you can enjoy a series of haunting and beautifully played solos

Aura - traditional melodies arranged by Neil Martin
Níon a Bhaoilligh (Boyles Daughter) [04:49]
The Boy in the Glen [06:59]
The Blue Hills of Antrim (Méilte Cheann Dubhrann) [05:20]
Cailín na Gruaige Doinne (The Girl with the Brown Hair) [05:28]
The Wexford Carol [04:42]
Úr Chnoc Chéin Mhic Cháinte [03:45]
Danny Boy [05:03]
Slán le Máigh (Farewell to the Maigue) in memoriam Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin [06:28]
My Lagan Love [03:49]
Sliabh na mBan (The Women's Mountain) [05:53]
Ruth McGinley (piano)

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